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Truth or Cleverness

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To the editors:

With all respect to my friend Jim Krohe, I take exception to some of his remarks about Michigan Avenue [September 27].

1. Krohe writes, "had [Eliel] Saarinen and [Frank Lloyd] Wright been allowed to build on the avenue, it might today deserve to be called 'the Magnificent Mile.'" There are several problems with this. First, it buys into the tiresome view, commonly aired by younger architects trying to make an impression at parties, that Michigan Avenue is a failure. I have spent a lot of time walking around American and Canadian cities; if Michigan Avenue is a failure, we have no successes.

Second, it ignores a key fact. I gather the building Krohe wishes Saarinen had been allowed to build is the one entered in the Chicago Tribune design competition of 1922. The essential features of this building were incorporated into the 333 N. Michigan Avenue building; cf Chicago, 1910-29, Condit, pp. 118-19.

Third, Krohe assumes a great street is the result of an accumulation of great architecture. This is seldom the case. It has been said that Paris is a beautiful city full of mediocre buildings. That's not precisely true of Michigan Avenue, which has a few masterpieces. But most of the buildings are unexceptional. What gives the street its character is not outstanding architecture but the design of the street itself, the relationship of the buildings to it (including the skillful design of the storefronts), the high quality of materials, and the diversity of uses.

Finally, readers should know that Frank Lloyd Wright's Michigan Avenue skyscraper design was a highly idiosyncratic work. While it's unfortunate it wasn't built somewhere in Chicago, it's no great tragedy it didn't go up on Michigan Avenue.

2. Krohe writes, "Piles like Chicago Place are just as ersatz as their predecessors but they lack the latters' modesty. New York has the Trumps as a symbol of money's victory over style; Chicago has North Michigan Avenue."

This is off the wall. Does Krohe somehow have the idea that earlier buildings like Tribune Tower are modest? Had someone said that to Colonel McCormick, the eccentric Tribune publisher who built the "Symphony in Stone," it would have broken his heart. Modesty is also not the first term that comes to mind when one thinks of the Wrigley Building, which has been illuminated by a blinding array of spotlights for virtually its entire existence. The buildings of the 1920s were as pretentious as their owners and architects could make them.

Chicago Place cannot legitimately be described as "just as ersatz" as its predecessors, if by ersatz one means to suggest a cheesy pastiche of design ideas from earlier periods. Many of the architectural features of the buildings of the 20s were directly copied from buildings of the Renaissance. Chicago Place to my knowledge has no direct historical precedents. It displays historical influences, but that could be said of any building except for a few by the first modernists.

Krohe's low opinion of Chicago Place is hard to fathom. It is a handsome building by any reasonable standard and certainly an improvement over 900 N. Michigan and Water Tower Place, at least in terms of its relation to the street. The use of false windows on the facades of the retail pedestal (given the reality that mall merchants do not want genuine windows) seems preferable to the blank expanse of masonry evident at Water Tower Place and only thinly disguised at 900 N. Michigan. In any case the building is not just another piece of schlock architecture.

Krohe quotes historian John Stamper's claim that North Michigan Avenue is in danger of becoming "an urban wasteland of unprecedented proportions" and calls it "a little hysterical." Indeed. You want an urban wasteland, visit Lawndale. Michigan Avenue, whatever its defects, is among the world's most attractive commercial streets, has not become markedly less so in the 26 years I have been acquainted with it (quite the contrary), and does not seem in imminent peril now.

Jim is a good fellow and a fine writer. But all of us in this business are tempted to say things that are cleverer than they are true.

Ed Zotti

W. Vernon Park

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